20 years after Columbine, work continues to engineer safer schoolsDavid Wagman | April 17, 2019
Engineers may add fluid dynamics to the list of tools at their disposal to help communities prevent, respond to and recover from active shooter events.
Together, these committees are writing standards to help engineers and designers create school buildings that are better able to deter and neutralize an armed attack.
As part of their work — which is expected to cover everything from HVAC shortcomings to parameters for siting new schools — engineers will use computer modeling to understand how people move through doorways and hallways during an evacuation.
By understanding an evacuation’s fluid-like characteristics, engineers may be able to identify potential choke points (doorways and stairwells, for example) and design spaces that help get people out quickly.
“Schools need to be safer,” said Jeff Brown, director of security for Live Oak Consultants LLC. He leads the ASTM standards writing effort that is slated to have a document ready for approval by mid-2020.
In recent years, multiple groups have released volumes of guidelines on improving school security, but many stop short in providing enough detail for the design community.
“The detail is lacking because it’s a huge issue,” Brown said. The ASTM efforts are aimed at providing detail around such vague directives as "install door locks."
Indeed, the range of school security issues is wide ranging and complex. A sampling includes deploying security cameras; adopting common radio frequencies for emergency responders and school administrators to use; enhanced window glazing, door locks and hardware; improving lighting and sight lines in hallways; and installing barriers to prevent car from ramming secured doors.
Engineers and security experts also are embracing strategies based on defense-in-depth concepts. These ideas take security to the school’s perimeter and even into the surrounding community. License plate readers located at school parking lot entrances are among the technologies that may be deployed, in addition to fences and even boulders.
The best way to secure schools is to “keep the bad guys as far away as possible,” Brown said. While it may be impossible to deter all potential attackers, defense-in-depth may slow an attack to give law enforcement enough time to intervene.
A haunting attack
Response times haunt security professionals. Twenty years ago on April 20, two teenagers walked into a Colorado high school during the lunch hour and began an armed attack that left 12 students and a teacher dead.
The shootings that day at Columbine were not the first to occur in a school. But they shocked the suburban Denver school district along with the nation and the world. The school’s name has become almost synonymous with the heartbreaking occurrence of mass shooting events at schools across the country.
One post-Columbine change was the idea that responding law enforcement officers should wait for Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams to arrive to confront an attacker. A long response time meant that several of victims — including Columbine teacher Dave Sanders — bled to death before medical help could arrive. Doctrine today states that law enforcement should immediately try to engage the attacker and for emergency medical technicians to enter "warm zones" as quickly as possible, even if the attack is still in progress. Those responders may wear body armor as they move in to treat injuries.
From preparation to recovery
Now, 20 years after the Columbine attack, work is under way by ASTM and others to write and put into practice standards aimed at helping communities safeguard against, respond to and recover from mass shooting events.
And while Columbine — along with more recent shootings at Virginia Tech, Newtown, Parkland and elsewhere — were devastating events, the June 2016 mass killings at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, may have sparked the recent push to write comprehensive standards.
“NFPA 3000 was the game changer,” said Jennifer Marshall a physical scientist/program manager for Public Safety Standards Coordination at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The 2018 standard she referred to was written on a fast track and released by the National Fire Protection Association at the urging of Orlando’s fire chief in the wake of the nightclub shooting that left 49 people dead and another 53 wounded.
Indeed, NFPA 3000 is only the second standard in the organization’s 125-year history to carry a “provisional” status, meaning that it was completed in less than the several-year process typical of most standard writing efforts.
A committee made up of 75 people from across the incident management sector collaborated to write the document. On the task force were nearly two-dozen people who had been directly affected by a mass shooting, including one police officer who suffered 15 bullet wounds in a Wisconsin incident.
“It was recognized that there was a glaring safety need in the community” for a standard like NFPA 3000, Marshall said.
The standard seeks to address four overarching themes that are common in mass shooting events, said John Montes, an emergency services specialist with NFPA.
First, the standard seeks to set aside the common misconception that an active shooter event is solely a law enforcement issue. Most shootings occur rapidly and are over within a matter of minutes. The initial police response needs to be quickly augmented by fire, emergency medical and public health responders, along with some non-governmental organizations like the Red Cross.
“The public has a role to play, too,” Montes said, and NFPA 3000 seeks to define and assign roles across the first responder community and beyond.
Second, NFPA 3000 seeks to break down silos that often exist in emergency response agencies. It aims to accomplish that task by addressing the concept of unified command. One goal, for example, is to present a unified message to the community. Doing so can reinforce the sense that agencies are coordinating their efforts. A simple but effective example, Montes said, was one Massachusetts school district that began including fire and police agencies in email messages to parents. That easy step helped to let parents know that safety agencies are talking with each other.
Third is the idea of an integrated incident response. The scope includes mutual aid agreements in which fire and police resources from nearby communities can be called on to help in an emergency.
“It’s all about knowing what resources are available and teaching responders to work together,” Montes said.
Fourth is recovery planning from a mass shooting incident.
“We spend so much time preparing for the 12 minutes of shooting,” Montes said. “Recovery lasts forever.”
Indeed, recent deaths by suicide involving survivors from the Newtown and Parkland school shootings, along with the FBI’s investigation of a threat against Denver-area schools in the days leading to the Columbine anniversary.
The alleged threat came from a woman apparently obsessed with Columbine and illustrates that aftershocks can be long-lasting. To address recovery after a shooting, NFPA 3000 focuses on mental health and other community resources to help the healing process.
“Our goal was to help make communities more resilient” in the face of mass shootings that otherwise might not be preventable. The standard “won’t eliminate the loss of life, but it may reduce” casualties, he said.
Hardware and technology
Another change since Columbine is to restrict access to one or two doors that can be monitored by staff or security personnel. The days of leaving multiple exterior doors unlocked throughout the school day are largely over.
“We keep the perimeter secure,” said Guy Grace, director of security and emergency preparedness for schools in Littleton, Colorado. Columbine High School is in the town of Littleton, but is one of more than a dozen high schools in the Jefferson County school district.
One school in Grace’s jurisdiction, Arapahoe High School, suffered an armed attack in 2013 that left one student dead. The attack included a Molotov cocktail that was tossed in an attempt to get students and faculty evacuate into exposed locations where they could by fired upon. When the explosive went off, the school was already in lockdown, so no evacuation took place when fire alarms sounded, Grace said.
The effort to trigger a potentially lethal evacuation by setting off fire alarms led to a change in NFPA code that allows a lockdown alarm to override a fire alarm. What’s more, magnetically controlled fire doors are now tied in to lockdown controls so that they can be shut automatically if a threat is detected, potentially slowing an attack.
In Parkland, Florida, officials approved the design for a new school, the first to be built in the district since the March 2018 shootings at nearby Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School. The school would have a 6 ft fence around the property, and an 8 ft non-scalable fence surrounding the school building. Bollards would prevent a car from driving into the school. Surveillance cameras would be monitored live with a seven-day loop.
In addition, the lobby would have bullet-resistant glass. After visitors IDs are checked and people are buzzed in, they will have to pass through two bullet-resistant doors before gaining access to classrooms. Those rooms, in addition to having bullet-resistant doors and glass, would remain locked. The school also would have two uniformed police officers.
In addition to his work in Littleton, Grace chairs an organization called Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS), which published guidelines for school security enhancements. The guidelines outline a tiered approach to technology and hard asset investments. A proliferation of school security equipment makes it possible for district administrators to spend a lot of money on technology that they may not need.
“In the past, school districts would buy a solution that they probably did not need,” Grace said. The approach advocated by PASS is for school authorities to assess their current technology and maximize that investment. For example, many schools already have surveillance cameras and communication networks in place. Those technologies can be effective tools in enhancing defense-in-depth strategies.
“This isn’t Star Trek technology,” Grace said. Costs can vary widely, but effective security tools can be added for around $35,000 at a typical elementary school to as much as $150,000 at a high school. Grace said that one Colorado school recently installed a video surveillance network at a cost of around $120,000.
“We are seeing schools reach out blindly” for security technology, said ASTM’s Jeff Brown. In some cases, school districts may buy a security device that can compromise safety another way. For example, blocking devices are sold to school districts as a way to keep an attacker from breaching a classroom door. But those devices may violate fire codes.
John Montes from NFPA said that no attacker has breached a locked door, although several fired weapons through doors or, as in the case of Sandy Hook Elementary, broke glass windows.
“No one has died in a school fire since 1958,” Montes said. “We can’t sacrifice fire safety for security.”
Two decades after Columbine, current efforts to write industry standards may soon help officials, planners and engineers create more resilient communities as well as schools that are better able to repel and respond to an attack.
“We’re a reactionary society” and everyone hoped that the next school shooting wouldn’t happen, Brown said by way of explaining why active shooter standards are only now being written. Stakeholders realized that school shootings represent "an epidemic" that won’t go away.
“There’s now enough fire in the belly to get it done.”